The emerging workplace is urban

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By Andrew Laing, PhD / Work&Place Journal Edition 3 – June 2014, Pages 11-14

Tags: workplace design • technology • urbanisation

The changing relationship between work and place challenges our inherited ideas about offices and, now, a combination of the physical and digital is transforming the urban landscape too

The Shift to Urban Scale

As we explore the future of work and place, we are beginning to see a shift towards an urban scale in how we frame the workplace problem. Our starting point is perhaps no longer the office but the city at large. And what we mean by the city may not be the bricks and mortar urbanism of the twentieth century, but a bricks and mortar urbanism imbued with digital information and connectivity: a powerful combination of the physical and digital.

This concept of what some have called a ‘sentient’ city provides us with a new perspective for the workplace (Shepard, 2010).It suggests new kinds of units and scales of analysis for how we understand work and place, and how we might program and plan workplaces in the future. We can begin to identify a new typology of workplaces. These urban kinds of workplaces are characterized not only by new kinds of spaces but also by new ways of procuring, obtaining, and using space. New patterns of working and using technology result in new ways space can be obtained and consumed that use online tools in markets that challenge the traditional supply and demand economy of office real estate.

Changes in work, technology, and space use are driving the demand for an architecture and urbanism (physical and virtual) that is more hybrid, mixed use, connected and permeable. This urban architecture is likely to be almost the opposite of the twentieth century’s Modern Movement’s segregation of functions and activities into purpose built, single use, zoned buildings and districts (Duffy, 1998).

I began to think more about this change of scale and perspective when I wrote a paper that explored the accommodation needs of the fast growing technology sector in New York City last year (Laing, 2013). What interests me most is that in creating new products, this sector pioneers many new ways of using space and technology. What was also interesting was the fact that the applications being developed are often designed to improve how we live and work in dense urban environments (for example, better ways of ordering food, buying clothes, meeting people, finding doctors etc.).

The technology workplace has become a harbinger of wider trends and innovations in how we design, use, and obtain space. This takes many different forms: from the use of a wide variety of co-working spaces, to the urban “meet-up culture,” and the ways in which technology enables space to be found and consumed in new ways. Yet the tech industry in New York also highlights the importance of the dense networked physical fabric of environments (the bricks and mortar) for working and living in the city, even in an increasingly virtualized world.

Two big shifts stand out which have more general implications for work and place: the shift towards collaborative and urban “workscapes” that are more heterogeneous, mixed-use and multi-scaled; and a related shift to the collaborative consumption of workspace and workspace-as-service.

Looking at the technology sector also highlights the apparently never-ending impact of innovation on how we use technology to work and live. It is information technology that has enabled what is now a mature yet continuing 25-year old revolution that constantly re-shapes the relationships between the individual worker and work spaces; breaking apart what Duffy called the Taylorist industrial model of work time and work space (Duffy 1998), in particular the fixed allocation of individuals to dedicated individual workspaces.

Cities remain valued creative centres

It is also somewhat surprising to find that it is technology that is augmenting, re-defining and accentuating the advantages of central places and dense urban environments as preferred locations of work. While technology has enabled mobility and the ability to work in many different kinds of places, urban centres appear more than ever the privileged location. Technology means that the conventional, narrowly prescriptive, architectural programming of different kinds of spaces is becoming less relevant as knowledge workers behave more like ‘cyborg foragers’ and appropriate spaces as they need them (Mitchell, 2003). Yet cities are ever more valued as centres of networking and creativity.

There was a period in the 1970s when thinkers about work and place believed that networked computers would mean a decline in the importance of central locations in favour of an ability to work from ‘tele-cottages’ or to telecommute (Graham, 2004). Quite the contrary appears to be happening.  Even as we appear to need fewer highly specialised or tailored work spaces, the design of space and the particularities of location are by no means irrelevant.

New hierarchies of value for places and spaces are emerging: the most valuable being those that are well connected to public transport and that integrate, superimpose, and connect multiple kinds of virtual and social networks (Duffy, 1998). These are the places that make a difference: they are meaningful, beautiful, interesting or significant in ways that other places are not. Information technology adds value to such places and changes how we use them, enriching the value of the city as the ultimate network of networks.

In contrast to the industrial model of work and workplaces in which workers would be collocated in the office (or factory) to work on supervised tasks during a fixed working day, the much more plural and social nature of knowledge work depends on a wider-scale network of physical and virtual relationships. In this sense, an urban scale of proximity is of great value to organizations.

It is within cities that a nomadic way of working can be most successful, supporting individual users with a choice of places and settings in which interactive and solo work can happen

It is within cities that a nomadic way of working can be most successful, supporting individual users with a choice of places and settings in which interactive and solo work can happen. Many theorists (Glaeser, 2011) argue that the role of cities as the most effective environments in which to exchange knowledge has actually increased in significance even as technology allows so many forms of communication to be virtual. In fact, virtual interactions and face-to-face interactions reinforce each other. Information technology creates a more relationship-intensive world and reinforces the fundamental purpose and logic of the city as a dynamo of intellectual growth.

Cities also concentrate talent and much of the value of dense urban work environments comes from unplanned as well as planned meetings. The urban logic of the value of serendipitous encounters has almost become a cult in workplace planning with workplaces being planned to function like mini-cities in which hallway and cafeteria discussions are engineered into the design of the building. The focus on the benefits of these kinds of urban-like encounters in the workplace has led to some reaction against full time remote working and other forms of distributed working. For most knowledge workers, however, the best work solutions are not simply either ‘working in the office’ or ‘working out of the office’.

For many, working virtually is already happening whether they happen to be working from home, in the office, in third places, or in transit. Yet, the places where people can work together, face-to-face, remain fundamental to many critical aspects of work performance and creativity. Technology has not replaced place, rather it is augmenting the value of physical places as the most valuable hubs of physical and virtual networks.

Given the ways in which technology augments how we experience and use space in the city, with the place of work no longer simply the office but a larger network of urban environments; what are some of the emerging types of workplaces that perform well as work environments in an urban context?

Workspace at an urban scale

If we begin to think of the technologically enabled urban environment as the domain of work, rather than the conventional office building or office floor, we can re-imagine urban living and working as a kind of blended experience. When we no longer think of workplaces as places dedicated only to working, we can plan cities and buildings to be more multifunctional and mixed in use. Technology is enabling us to rethink how we work and live across all kinds of spaces. It is enabling us to repurpose single-user, under-occupied office buildings into dense intensively used hubs of social connectivity and interaction. It is enabling us to repurpose our homes as workspaces for part of the day or the week, whenever it suits our work process and our personal lives.

This mixing of activities over time and space in the city works for many different scale of organization. Larger firms want to increase their opportunities for networking knowledge and ideas in their own physical workplaces (mimicking the richness of communications found in smaller more informal organizations), while the contingent peripheral workforce and smaller scale organizations also seek workplaces in which they can connect and collaborate. There is therefore a mutual interdependency between the interests of the larger firms and the periphery of smaller firms and individual contributors. Both are seeking combinations of virtual and physical spaces in which to network.

This logic can apply at scales larger than any one organization’s workspace, to whole buildings and urban areas. It points to thinking of urban workspace as a resource to be shared and used over time by multiple organizations and individuals. In the same way that office buildings are now used in a dynamic ‘desk sharing’ model that increases utilization, occupancy levels (and decreases carbon footprint), we can begin to think of urban areas and districts as shared workspace resources that can be intensively shared and dynamically occupied, increasing their levels of activity and usage over 24 hours. It suggests that buildings can be used by a greater variety of functions and activities that are less homogeneous. It also suggests that as work spills out of conventional office space, the spaces in-between buildings become part of the programmable area of urban ‘workspaces’.

This kind of landscape of work, or what others have called a ‘workscape’ (Harrison et al, DEGW, 2004), is evidenced in an array of new types of workplaces that operate in an urban way at an urban scale. What we mean by ‘urban’ in this sense is a pattern of use that depends on a wide scale networking of multiple organizations and individuals, who pool resources and socialize their use of space over time in a dynamic way.

I have identified four such types of emergent urban workplaces: Co-working, Open House, Working Commons, and Co-habiting (see details below).

I am indebted to my colleague Sue Wittenoom for suggesting the workplace type of ‘Working Commons’.

These workplace types share characteristics that are neither entirely public nor exclusively private. Rather, they all operate as ‘privileged’ environments with filtered and managed degrees of access, and varying degrees of individual user, corporate or governmental control and management. They often support models of collaborative consumption of space and the provision of workspace as a service.  They suggest some new roles and responsibilities for developers, landlords and city governments as they actively curate and manage a changing semi-public platform of work, social and cultural events.   W&P

The emerging typography of the workplace


The phenomenon of co-working has been expanding rapidly. It involves shared environments in which individuals and small groups gather together to work in a community, usually paid for on a membership basis and invoiced either monthly or daily. These spaces provide a community workspace with shared services that let individuals and small groups share ideas and mutually support each other’s work. Corporate organizations are encouraging their own employees to work in co-working spaces as an alternative to their regular workspace, not to save on costs primarily, but to facilitate their interaction and knowledge sharing with others and to inspire creativity.

Open House

Aside from the different kinds of co-working spaces, there is a related trend for organizations to open up their own workspace to a wider community and to invite others in to share it. Accenture’s recent office project in Paris refocused the whole office environment on collaborative activities for staff—assuming that much individual work can be completed outside of the office—and opened up the office for clients and others in the city to use. The BBC has, for many years, created workplaces that are designed around the assumption that its collaborators in creating television programmes should be invited to work together in shared environments. Microsoft’s sales offices have been designed to also accommodate customers, and enable them to experience its technology and services. The open, flexible workplace that Microsoft created at Schipol in the Netherlands has been widely referenced as an example of this Open-House approach to the workplace.

Working Commons

In the same way that university campuses have moved away from libraries exclusively designated as places for reflective study, to spaces in which informal and ad-hoc collaboration happens in a ‘learning commons’, the ‘working commons’ emerges as a kind of semi-public shared space. The typical environments provide places to meet, study, make connections and exchange ideas. Food and drink are welcomed, furniture and equipment are mobile or re-configurable, and access may be at all hours. Settings change by the hour, day and week. There is an emerging role for city governments to host these kinds of working commons.


There is a further type of workspace in which, rather than the individual organization opening up to others or to the wider community, several organizations together share a work environment with the purpose of gaining from each other’s knowledge and experience. We have defined this kind of environment as Co-habiting. Google in London is supporting a co-working space called ‘Campus’ in which Google will occupy one floor and two others will be available for co-working. Steelcase is participating in a Co-habiting space called At GRid70 in Grand Rapids MI, Steelcase shares space with a multi-level marketer, a footwear manufacturer, and a test kitchen. These disparate residents are said to have also shared trade secrets, trend forecasts, and even recipes (Lindsay, 2013).

Collaborative consumption and workspace as a service

The economy of collaborative consumption, enabled by new applications and geo-location services, is beginning to also revolutionize the ways that firms and individuals procure and obtain workspaces, challenging the supply-side driven economy of landlords, developers and the real estate industry.  IT enables more virtual and mobile ways of working as well as revolutionizing the modes of obtaining and supplying space.

The collaborative consumption model provides users with much greater choice and control to obtain their work environments on an as-needed basis by the hour or day in any location or type of work environment they want. This shift to an individualistic and consumerist model of workspace means that space can be consumed collaboratively in the same way that in the sharing economy we can rent cars or films.

Services such as LiquidSpace not only open up many choices for end users of workspace, they also enable tenants and landlords to better utilise their own under-occupied space. The ability to obtain workspace in a more flexible as-needed way is being further enhanced by emphasising the provision of workspace as a service. New kinds of workplace providers are entering this marketplace.  Examples include the collaboration between Steelcase and Marriott to offer a service called ‘Workspring’, which provides workspace services within hotel environments. Similarly, Westin hotels offer a workspace service called Tangent.

These co-working and workspace-as-a-service models are responsive to user demands and stand in contrast to the limited services associated with the real estate conventions of leasing or buying office space. The diagram suggests the directions of change identified here: towards increasingly heterogeneous workplaces that are increasingly collaborative and urban in nature. 

These shifts towards the urban workplace are also associated with a move away from owning or leasing spaces to various forms of shared and collaboratively consumed and serviced spaces, often used and provided in a more temporary or transient form. These trends suggest that in thinking about ‘the urban’ as the new workplace, we will need to re-think how we program, design, use and manage workspace.


Instead of merely programming and planning offices, we are programming and planning cities.

About the Author

Andrew Laing, PhD, is an Advisor on Workplace Strategy and Design at Bridgewater Associates and previously global practice leader for the Strategy+Consulting practice at AECOM, (formerly DEGW). He received his PhD in urban studies and planning from MIT. He is a visiting lecturer at Princeton University School of Architecture; a Senior Fellow at the Center for Urban Real Estate at Columbia University, Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation; and a Senior Fellow at the Global Cities Institute, University of Toronto. He co-authored the books: The Responsible Workplace (1994) and New Environments for Working (1998) with Frank Duffy and has published many articles.


  1. This article draws on a longer paper “Work and Workplaces in the Digital City’ by Andrew Laing, published by the Center for Urban Real Estate (CURE) at Columbia University, November 30th, 2013.
  2. Frank Duffy, Work and the City, Black Dog Press, 1998.
  3. Stephen Graham, ‘From Dreams of Transcendence to the Remediation of Urban Life’, in The Cybercities Reader, Routledge, 2004.
  4. Edward Glaeser, The Triumph of the City, Penguin Press, 2011.
  5. Andrew Harrison, Paul Wheeler, Carolyn Whitehead, The Distributed Workplace, Spon Press, 2004.
  6. Andrew Laing, ‘Work and Workplaces in the Digital City’, CURE, The Center for Urban Real Estate, Columbia University, November, 2013.
  8. Lindsay, Greg, Working Beyond the Cube, Fast Company (March, 2013) available at
  9. William Mitchell, Me++:The Cyborg Self and the Networked City, MIT Press, 2003.
  10. Mark Shepard, Ed., The Sentient City, Ubiquitous Computing, Architecture and the Future of Urban Space, The Architectural League of New York, MIT Press, 2010.






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